Why Do We Like Being Scared?


“Want to go to a haunted house?” 

“Want to go see It: Chapter 2?”

These questions typically generate two responses: either an immediate refusal, or the sneaky grin of a child stealing from the cookie jar. 

If you were a fly on the wall at my local Barnes & Noble recently, you would have seen that sneaky grin on my face as I handed over my credit card and purchased a stack of Stephen King novels. I couldn’t wait to crack open those spooky pages — I couldn’t wait to be scared. 

What followed was a week of vivid, clown-filled nightmares. Nevertheless, I picked up my book each night before bed, knowing full well that I’d be greeted with red balloons and the sensation of running in slow-motion from leering monsters with outstretched claws. 

You might be asking, “But why torture yourself?!” Or maybe you relate to the heart-pounding allure of scary books, movies, and haunted houses. There is, after all, an entire industry and holiday that thrives on people who crave a good scare. 

But the question remains: Why do we enjoy being scared? It turns out that there’s a lot of science explaining the horror phenomenon. 

It gives us feel-good hormones

Getting scared is a rush — a rush of hormones, to be exact. Margee Kerr, Ph.D., sociologist and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, told The Atlantic that fear feels good because it causes the brain to enter into “survival” mode, which releases adrenaline. Your brain’s amygdala releases feel-good hormones like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins to aid the “fight or flight” reaction, offering a natural high. 

Neuropsychologist David Zald conducted a study on the brain’s autoreceptors, which control the amount of free-good hormones released. He found that individuals with fewer autoreceptors were more likely to seek out exhilarating activities. He explains why: “Think of dopamine like gasoline. You combine that with a brain equipped with a lesser ability to put on the brakes than normal, and you get people who push limits.” 

We know we’re safe 

Another key component is the sense of control and safety. If you were truly being chased by an evil clown, nothing could make you enjoy the scare — not even feel-good hormones. But when you’re in the comfort of your home reading a scary book, your brain’s prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain responsible for logic and reason) registers that there is no real danger. This allows you to enjoy the rush of those “fight or flight” hormones without actually having to fight or flee. When you know you can turn off a movie, get off a scary ride, or simply reason that clowns in gutters don’t exist, you can enjoy fear on your own terms. 

Feeling safe also determines the limit of the kind of horror we might enjoy. Many draw the line at things that hit too close to home — things that are too real. While Jaws is considered a classic and doesn’t feature ghoulish creatures, many find it more disturbing because great white sharks actually do exist. 

On the other hand, some people are totally fine with zombie, alien, vampire, and clown flicks, but refuse to see anything containing demons and evil spirits. Similarly, movies that are overly gory can be extremely off-putting because of the realism. Anything that is too real to the viewer will make them feel unsafe, making it difficult to enjoy the rush. 

Conquering fear feels good

If you’ve ever made it through a really scary movie, you probably felt a sense of pride afterward. People enjoy the boost in confidence that comes from conquering fears. In fact, studies have shown that men especially like scary movies. Glenn Sparks, Ph.D., has studied the way men and women respond to terrifying images. Men “get great satisfaction being able to say that they conquered and mastered something that was threatening,” he said.

Getting through a scary scenario can also be a bonding experience. Would you go into a haunted house alone? No way. But maybe you would go with a group of friends whom you can high-five afterward! And let’s not forget the couples who suddenly have an interest in horror movies. Aside from the obvious excuse to cuddle on the couch, couples enjoy feeling like they’re bonding as they jump and scream through horror flicks. 

It gives us an escape

Being entranced by fear is pure escapism. When we zero in on a scary scenario unfolding before us, we enter into a one-track state of mind and our real-life problems fade away. School, work, bills, and relationships take a back seat, which can be relieving. “Our thoughts can just take a break and we can enjoy being fully in our bodies,” said Kerr.

“Some people have a need to expose themselves to sensations that are different from the routine,” said Sparks. “While experiencing a frightening movie may have some negatives, individuals often derive gratification because the experience is different.” Exploring something so different from our ordinary lives can be like entering a fantasy, which is intriguing in its own right. 

Why some people don’t enjoy being scared

If you’re in the “I hate being scared” club and wonder why none of the above applies to you, it may have to do with two things: brain function or past experience. 

According to brain scans, the people who enjoy fear and the people who dislike fear have brains that function differently. Studies reveal that some individuals have prefrontal cortexes that cannot register being in a safe environment, so they are unable to enjoy the “fear high.”

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for managing your amygdala, aka your fight-or-flight impulse. If your prefrontal cortex is underactive, it can’t communicate that there’s no real danger, causing your fight-or-flight impulse to run amok. Individuals who suffer from anxiety tend to have prefrontal cortexes that look different than those who do not suffer from anxiety. 

Negative experiences are another reason why some people don’t like scary things. The amygdala is also where we store memories of events, so if you’re introduced to a scary movie or pushed into a haunted house at too young of an age, it can be traumatic. The prefrontal cortex is still developing in kids and it’s harder for them to believe monsters aren’t real. 

Kerr explains, “The chemicals that are released during fight-or-flight can work like glue to build strong memories (‘flashbulb memories’) of scary experiences. It can be something you’ll never forget, in a bad way.” This is why many adults still shudder at movies they saw when they were kids. Movies like Child’s Play and It have created generations of individuals who hate anything dealing with creepy dolls or clowns.

Fantasy vs. reality

When I read my Stephen King horror novels, I dive into the characters. My heart races as they narrowly escape bloodthirsty creatures — I see what they see, I feel what they feel. When it gets to be too much, I snap the pages shut and find myself back in my cozy, safe bedroom. 

Toeing the line between fantasy and reality is perhaps what makes the horror genre truly entertaining. Our imaginations allow us to enter into an alternate universe of thrilling, spooky monsters that feels familiar, but is safe because we’re still in control. We get the rush without the consequences — for some, it’s the best of both worlds.

Be in the know with Grotto